Much can be learned from research papers on the Head Start effort to provide comprehensive services and educated policy makers. Head Start's organizational structure is firmly in place, yet they are continually striving to improve and create a functional system that is responsive to the needs of the people they serve through a network of coordinating councils. Although their efforts are among the most successful, there are still barriers to the collaborative efforts to integrate early care and education for young children.
The different visions adopted by various Head Start programs are one of the main barriers. It would be beneficial if federal, state, and local officials worked together to coordinate efforts. However, the Head Start programs also offer different levels of quality and each region has a different need focus, making coordination challenging. Another barrier to common success is that licensing, training and certification requirements differ among programs, as do eligibility requirements for participants. Head Start is unique because, unlike all other early childhood programs, it is not administered by the individual states. The project directors have no authority over Head Start grantees and cannot speak for them or negotiate on their behalf. They also have no authority to make decisions regarding resource allocation, data collection, program planning, or service priorities at the state or local level, which seriously restricts participation in collaborative policy.
In order to improve the Head Start program, the following may be suggested:
- Officials must encourage collaborative learning, possibly through the use of incentives;
- State offices should take an active role in the selection, monitoring and refunding of grantees;
- Grants must be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure ongoing quality of administration;
- Parental participation programs must be expanded to meet the needs of working parents;
- Administration should work to share information about innovative models for full-day and full-year services.
Recent research suggests that Head Start is in serious need of improvement. A December 2012 report published by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services' Administration for Children & Families reveals that Head Start is failing to meet some of its core objectives. The report describes a Congressionally-mandated study involving a nationally representative sample of Head Start-eligible three- and four-year-olds from low-income families. The researchers randomly assigned more than 5,000 of the preschoolers either to participate in Head Start, or not. By gathering data from the students from 2002 to 2008, the researchers could compare their performances through the third grade. (Publication of the results was delayed for a number of years.)
The Modest Benefits of Head Start
The researchers found that Head Start did initially provide certain modest benefits, specifically with respect to literacy and language development. However, by the end of the third grade these benefits had all but vanished and the two groups of students were quite similar in terms of cognitive development, social development and emotional development, health status, and parenting practices. Regrettably, therefore, almost 50 years after it was launched, Head Start seems to be falling rather short of its promise to prepare low-income children for school. New ways must be found to ensure that the program delivers on the worthy objective of offsetting the disadvantages of poverty with a balanced mix of preschool education, parental involvement, nutrition services, and medical health, mental health, and dental care.